Whoever ridicules the Pope, ridicules Christ

The Pope is the Vicar of Christ; he is the representative of Jesus Christ on earth. The Pope is also the supreme teacher and shepherd of souls in the Church on earth. Whoever ridicules the Pope, ridicules Christ. Whoever treats the Pope with contempt, treats Christ with contempt. Whoever rejects the Pope, rejects Christ.

The Pope is not personally sinless, nor is he infallible in his personal opinions or decisions on discipline. His infallible teachings cannot err at all and require the full assent of faith. But his non-infallible teachings allow for a limited possibility of error, and therefore a similarly limited possibility of faithful dissent. The faithful do not sin, if they disagree amicably with some decision on discipline or with a personal theological opinion of the Pope. And since the Pope is a sinner, the faithful might have a better opinion of one Pope, and a lesser opinion of another. Not every Pope is a Saint.

Even so, nothing any Pope does or says justifies ridicule, contempt, malice, hatred, or utter rejection. For the Pope is the ambassador of Christ and the head of the Church on earth.

Suppose that the ruler of a kingdom sends his ambassador to speak to a neighboring land. The ambassador does not speak for himself; he speaks for his ruler, and he represents his ruler. If that land ridicules the ambassador, they have in effect ridiculed the ruler and his kingdom. Therefore, whoever ridicules the Pope, ridicules Jesus Christ and His kingdom.

Sinful secular society often ridicules Christianity, Catholicism, the Church, the Bible, the Saints, and the Pope. Sometimes they even ridicule God or Jesus Christ. But when believing and practicing Catholics ridicule the Pope, it is a greater sin. Of those to whom more is given, more will be expected. And when a priest who teaches the Faith ridicules the Pope, it is even more sinful. For teachers will have the stricter judgment.

Recently, Pope Francis decided to permit women to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday, in the ritual that began when Christ washed the feet of the Apostles. Now this ritual has two meanings. First, it indicates the role of service that Christ gave to the leaders of the Church, to bishops, priests, and deacons. But it also indicates the role of service that all the baptized faithful have toward all who are in spiritual or temporal need. So if the ritual is restricted to men, it emphasizes the one meaning, without denying the other. And if the ritual permits both men and women, then it emphasizes the second meaning, without denying the other.

Therefore, the decision of Pope Francis on this point of discipline in no way contradicts or undermines any doctrine. But the faithful are free to disagree with any decision of any Pope on a point of discipline; you do not sin if you have a different opinion on the best choices for discipline.

On the other hand, if, in reaction to a decision of any Pope on discipline, you decide to ridicule and express contempt and denigration for the Pope, you sin gravely. For Sacred Scripture teaches us to respect even the secular authorities. How much more, then, should we respect the spiritual authorities, especially the Vicar of Christ? If any priest is ridiculed by a member of his flock, he would rightly be upset. So how is it, then, that some priests feel free to ridicule the Pope? Do they not consider themselves to be members of his flock? Or do they think that a Pope is only the Vicar of Christ when he makes every decision, on doctrine and discipline, according to their own minds?

Over at Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s blog, there is a recent post, titled: Rules change for Holy Thursday. Hijinx ensues. The post is a long quote from a website that regularly ridicules the Pope and the Holy See. The focus of ridicule was the decision of Pope Francis to permit women to have their feet washed in the Holy Thursday ritual. The quote claimed that women would also get a pedicure during the ritual. Father Z. condoned this ridicule by presenting the long quote, adding his own emphasis, and then relating it to a quote from Pope Francis.

In addition, the comments section contains ridicule of Pope Francis. Some of the comments extend the ridicule of the quote; others were more direct in their expressions. One commentator said, about Pope Francis: “His words are an insult. I find him intolerable most times.” Another ridiculed the Church, calling Her: “the New Church of the Spirit of Today”. Still another denigrated the entire papacy of Pope Francis, saying: “Just another day in in the death-of-a-thousand-cuts papacy”. And as often happens at Fr. Z.’s blog, the Second Vatican Council was blamed as well: “Vatican II is the root cause of this madness.” Another commentator denigrated both the Church and the Pope, writing: “We are witnessing the continuing protestantizing (and destruction) of the Catholic Church. By the alleged Vicar of Christ no less.”

There were 18 comments on that blog post, at the time of this writing. Does Fr. Z. bear any responsibility for the comments of others on his blog? Well, to comment on his blog, you must apply for membership, and then login with a username and password. Anyone whose comments are deemed troublesome can have their membership revoked by Fr. Z., or he can delete individual inappropriate comments. So when several persons speak with ridicule and contempt toward Pope Francis, and Fr. Z. does not delete the comment or ban the member, he shows tacit approval for their behavior.

Also, there are other posts, written by Fr. Z., which treat Pope Francis with ridicule and denigration, as if he did not have the role to teach and correct Fr. Z. and other traditionalists. Fr. Z. even sells a mug that ridicules an expression Pope Francis used in a papal document. So the commentators who ridicule the Pope are following the example of Fr. Z.

Father John Zuhlsdorf sins whenever he belittles or ridicules Pope Francis. And he commits the sin of scandal as well, since his words are public, and his readers are encouraged by him to participate in this ill treatment of the Pope. He should be encouraging his readers to respect the Pope, and to express any faithful disagreement with moderation and charity. He should remove from his blog any comments that are scandalous. But like many traditionalists, Fr. Z. does not accept correction from anyone, not even a Pope or Council.

What would these persons say if a liberal priest and his adherents ridiculed a conservative Pope? They would sharply rebuke them for such behavior. But Fr. Z. and many of his traditionalist readers assume that any decision on doctrine or discipline by Pope Francis cannot possibly be true or good if it is contrary to the majority opinion in the traditionalist subculture. When Pope Francis offers them correction, they do not spend consider whether his criticism is valid. They do not accept any criticism or correction from liberal Popes, nor from liberal Councils.

Do you imagine that Vatican II will be the last liberal Ecumenical Council ever? Have you not noticed that, in the Gospels, some of Jesus’ teachings are liberal, while other teachings are conservative? The correct answer to any theological question is sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, sometimes moderate.

So what will happen if Pope Francis approves of women deacons? What will happen if he teaches that non-Christians can be saved without converting to Christianity, or that atheists can be saved without converting to belief in God? What will happen if Pope Francis teaches that devout Jews and Muslims can be saved without converting to Christianity? If this is the way that they react to a minor change in discipline, one day of the year, how will they respond to some major development of doctrine or major change in discipline?

It seems clear that many traditionalists — not all of them — are headed toward the cliff of formal schism. And Fr. Z. is leading the way.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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